A Sweet Little History of Irish Pubs and Pub Tour of Ireland Advice


We’ve suggested a few times that you plan a pub tour of Ireland. You’ll find buildings steeped in tradition that cater to folks passing through with a warm, welcoming atmosphere.

However, just like all things Ireland, there’s an intriguing story behind the history of Irish pubs, too. And we at Tenon Tours love a good story.

Start by considering that ‘pub’ is short for public. The rich and politically powerful belonged to ‘private’ houses which required membership. Cool tidbit, right?

The hard-working lower classes turned to Irish pubs where all were welcome. (During your pub tour of Ireland, keep this dichotomy between the working class and the gentry in mind.) Most folks would frequent what they called a ‘local’ or a favorite pub. They were considered regulars, welcome anytime. Most working-class folks had (and still have to this day) two or three ‘locals’ — not just one.

It may surprise you to learn that pubs did not serve food as a part of their business. While one hotel in town may service travelers, and an eating-house was set up adjacent to the weekly Farmer’s Market, dining out was not part of the traditional Irish culture. Therefore, authentic Irish pubs, historically, only served alcohol.

In the early 20th century, the British decided to outlaw public houses altogether. A vast temperance movement took shape. In response, the families who relied on pub revenue were forced to develop other avenues of business. Overnight, pubs became hardware stores, undertakers and groceries. (Look for the term ‘Spirit Grocers’ to denote these shops.)

As you follow along your pub tour of Ireland, you’ll notice that many old pubs still have shelving behind the bar where goods were kept. (Since Northern Ireland later legislated that pubs had to be either a bar or a store, you will not see the same shelving in Northern Ireland pubs. It was removed as bars were renovated to comply with the laws.)

The other interesting piece of Irish pub history: grocery stores did not become prevalent in Ireland until the 1960s, helping pubs to maintain their status as a catch-all for side businesses along with the serving of alcohol.

In the 1970s, when more Irish families started to dine out, the more popular pubs started to serve food. Many also underwent renovations to turn their small, dark, traditional pubs into ornate, more socially acceptable bars that matched the outside world’s image of what an Irish pub should be.

Pubs were typically family owned and bare the names of their proprietors. A pub’s reputation was determined by the attitudes of its publican, or owner. Bartenders also invested in keeping customers happy since many hoped to own their own pub one day.

On a pub tour of Ireland, you’ll notice that if a pub doesn’t have a family name, it’s often named by the street it’s located on or, sometimes, a famous Irish literary character. You’ll also note older Irish pubs may be smaller than you’d expect, specifically due to the grocery shelving that took up a good portion of the bar.

The popularity of an Irish pub business model has been so successful it’s currently marketed all over the world. During your pub tour of Ireland, however, we challenge you to compare an authentic Irish pub (and more modern Irish pub) to other foreign models. Tell us what you see.


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